Texans' Williams should be Bears' top free-agent target

WR a need too, but rare pass-rushing skills too good to pass up

A little more than a month after the Bears professed to be re-emphasizing the draft, they likely are about to make it rain in free agency.

But that's good because this is an unusual year in free agency. Typically, the market mostly offers players who are old, overrated or out to lunch. But starting Tuesday, some difference-makers will be available.

It isn't often you see free agents the caliber of Texans defensive end Mario Williams, former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Saints guard Carl Nicks, Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan, Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr and Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant.

If the Bears are thinking of casting a line for one big fish, the decision facing general manager Phil Emery is this: Williams or Jackson?

Defense or offense?

Sacks or touchdowns?

Signing Jackson, or even Colston, would be a coup for the Bears. But pass rushers like Williams hardly ever are available. If Williams is within the Bears' grasp, he should be their man.

Williams is Julius Peppers all over again, except he's three years younger than Peppers was when the Bears signed him. At 27, Williams also is two years younger than Jackson.

Those years could be significant when the price to sign Williams may be a $30 million signing bonus and about $14 million a year.

Williams' best football should be ahead of him. You probably wouldn't make that argument about Jackson.

It's easy to envision Williams thriving in Chicago, playing on the opposite side of the line of Peppers and being coached by one of the finest defensive line teachers and motivators in the NFL in Rod Marinelli.

The Bears could bring out the best in Williams, and he could bring out the best in them. Their defense badly needs another pass-rushing force to maximize the talents of Peppers. Last season Peppers created havoc without reaping a benefit far too often. If Williams were on the same line, that would change.

Williams is a rare talent. He might be a notch below Peppers, according to three front-office men who were polled. But there isn't much difference.

"He doesn't have the same quick twitch that Peppers has, and he's been a little inconsistent game to game," one said. "But he has excellent play strength and a lot of tools. You would take him over Cliff Avril, definitely."

Williams had five sacks in his first five games last season before tearing a pectoral muscle. Over five years, he has a better sacks-per-game average (0.73) than all but the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware (1.0) and the Vikings' Jared Allen (0.99).

Williams was the first pick of the 2006 draft. If you could put all the free agents in a draft today, he would be the first pick again.

It's true the Bears would have an inordinate investment in their defensive ends if they signed Williams. But collecting pass rushers didn't hurt the Super Bowl champion Giants. The Lions have quite a group too.

As the subjects of the A&E series "Hoarders" might attest, you can't have too much of a good thing — especially pass rushers, and especially given the defensive and team philosophies the Bears subscribe to.

A defensive end's value is much greater than that of a wide receiver to the Bears. It's true a great quarterback can make his receivers better. On the other side of the ball, it's the end who makes his teammates better.

Many teams have won big without star receivers. Few have won without a pass rush that keeps quarterbacks up at night and down during games.

There will be competition for Williams. Teams that could be in the running are the Bills, Buccaneers, Chargers, Cowboys, Jaguars, Patriots, Seahawks, Titans and Texans. But that shouldn't prevent the Bears from trying.

If Williams says yes, the Bears still could add a second-tier free-agent receiver, maybe the Broncos' Eddie Royal or the Cowboys' Laurent Robinson.

If Williams says no, I could see them turning their attention to a No. 1 receiver and pursuing Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey.

The top name on their wish list, however, should be Mario Williams.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei
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